I've been running for about 10 minutes and I am finally settling in to a rhythm. That first quarter mile, half mile, three quarters all hurt. Ankles and knees and back all protest, muscles creak slowly out of their quiescence and things bounce that I didn't even know were there. I feel thick, heavy, so very unattractive. Then a mile comes, and it's like hand across slate. I can't feel anything anymore, other than my own lungs and even pulse. Can't hear anything but my own hand-picked music, can't see anything that I don't want to see.
And oh, the things I see. Sorority girls with thighs wider than mine and skin like leather, old couples walking laps in street clothes, young men who obviously do this thing daily to impress the twigs in the shortest of pink shorts. I have no patience for these people. I am trying to run and they are walking three abreast in the jogging lanes. I am trying to pass them with other people faster than me behind trying to pass me at the same time, and they are all laughing to each other with iPod headphones still glued into each ear. The ones trying to pass me barely hide their ire and cut me off when I finally get back to my own lane. It is all I can do to fight the urge to knock them over the railings to the basketball court below. Eight laps is a long time. I might snap before we get back around this straightaway. They say running releases some sort of magical neurotransmitter and makes you happy. I am not happy. I may never be happy again. They are in my way and I am angry because they won't get out of my damn way.
Then I round the corner and see him. Usually it's some girl, running around the same pace that I am. I can catch her, run past her, and feel that momentary surge of pride. Occasionally it's some boy. I can mark one a little faster than me, and just follow at a reasonable distance, holding out until the very end before using him as my stopping point. But him. This boy. He's just walking, calmly, twirling a towel in his hand.
I feel superior to walkers. Their lackadaisical attitude and inability to commit have me looking down my nose as lap after lap adds up around them. I feel superior to those holier-than-thou speed demons who sprint past me and then are found walking, huffing, as I round the corner for my 13th lap. So I see him, and I am feeling superior. I can lap him in no time. He's just a walker. He's got long hair and a black shirt. He's easy to see.
The third time I pass him, it's a game. He is always at the same spot when I rush past. He is walking at the same pace, I am running at the same pace, and we are having these fleeting moments against the wall. I curve around the track, passing him yet again. When I reach the far curve, he'll be directly across from me. I can see him each time. And now, I begin to think that he can see me too. He knows exactly where we'll rendevous.
This is no longer a race. This is a flirtation. I can see him turn when he gets to the far curve and I round the wall and I can feel his eyes on me from across the great void and I know instead of running away I am running to catch him. And there he is, as always, and I am keeping stride so that he can see me for a few brief moments. This is a treasure, my reward, each and every time. I am reveling in it. And I round the corner once more, see him looking, and I wink across the chasm between us. I don't know if he sees it but I'm sure he must. He disappears around a curve, and I follow.
But he's gone. I panic. Surely I didn't slow down. Surely I did not fumble the steps to this dance. I speed up and round the next curve, pacing be damned, so I can see him again. He's nowhere to be found. Now I am so angry... how could he have left? How could he have just abandoned me? I thought...
There's no room for thinking. Fuck this. I don't need him. I can finish this on my own. Who the hell did he think he was, anyway? Nothing to me. He's just a slow-moving long-haired man. Just some rube with a towel and a black shirt. Not even that attractive, really. Older than me. Can't keep up with my lifestyle, as we've established. No room for thinking. I just keep running.
It's three laps before he steps back on to the track. I have to clench my fists hard to keep from waving my welcome. I hope he sees the quick flash of a smile I give him as I pass him. It's like the last half mile never happened. We're back on. Everything is forgiven. This date is far from over.
It's the last lap, and I am in a wonderful mood. He was my beginning and he will be my end. This entire time he has seen me in rare form, graceful and strong and tireless. He has seen my legs stretching long and lean, biting into the track right next to him. Watched as my hair slips from its prison and embraces my neck. Heard my whispers of songs to keep me going in between my deep, even breaths in those seconds when we were nearly touching. If he did not feel the bass beat of my heart echo across his skin I would be amazed. I have done all of this for him, given him these fleeting glimpses of me. But he hasn't seen anything yet.
I round the corner and I am on fire. I am fire. I am golden, glowing, burning, beautiful, and I am full force bearing down on him. He is my pyre, he is my horizon, I am his goddess and he is being blazed in my glory. Fast and furious, a rush of speed and grandeur and then I am past him, heart pounding like my feet and I take one more deep breath and let it go, honeyed and promising ten steps in front of his measured gait. So here I am, pacing in front of him, all dripping impatience and majesty. I let my hair fall down my back, regal and imposing, run my fingers through it to show how I can tame it. I take long deep breaths, filling my lungs with air, having gotten almost but not quite enough during my wild flight. He could never tame me. But here I am, hips swaying, hair bouncing, arms and fingers stretching and twisting, reveling in this newer slower lifestyle. Here I am, showing off for him.
Some time during the cool down laps and water fountain trips and quiet stretches next to the wall, he must slip away. I step off the track and start to remember how mortality tasted. I am nursing my tender ankle, sipping water through my own personal Sahara, breathing slowly and trying to remain composed as the crashing weight of gravity settles onto my shoulders. What I mistook for divinity is now burning acid in my veins, and I want to shuffle home. If only I can make it to the locker room, to the shower, I can let the cool water crawl its way down my skin the way he is still crawling through my brain. As the droplets break across my face I close my eyes and am surprised to see him winking back at me.
There is nothing left for me here. I have won this round, finally in control of my body, mind and spirit. My heart rate has slowed and the pain has run down the drain like the salt and ashes of my rapid ascension. There is nothing left for me here. This is what I am thinking as I make my way down the stairs, toward the bright unknown outside. I have given up on him as an ephemeral dream, a flightless bird watching me soar overhead. But no. He's there, at the bottom, and hasn't seen me yet. I straighten up, put on a stoic face. I was a lioness and he was my prey and I won't let him scent my exhaustion. He is coming up and I am walking down and I am trying hard to seem haughty, and strong, and let him live my fantasy as I did. It will be one furtive glance on the steps and a quick wry smile that I know he sees and this affair will be over.
I stumble, betrayed by my limbs. They are telling me I am willow when I know for sure I am steel. I inhale quickly, eyes closing as I brace for impact. But it never comes. Instead, I find my arm caught in a firm, warm grip. My eyelids flash open and there he is, holding me up and smiling down. My hard-won pulse rate is threatening to escape and I exhale slowly, hand now wrapping instinctively around the banister. My legs are trembling and my heart still hasn't completely slowed as I try to fathom something appropriate to stutter out. All the while he is making me feel as if I was the doe and he had just stood waiting, quiver stowed, until I tired myself out.
Slow smile creeps over his face and looking into his eyes I realize he has his own fire. "Good run?" he asks, low and full of laughter. My lips part like clouds on sunshine and I am thinking maybe someday I can re-climb Mount Olympus with this man.
"Great run. Good walk?" I ask, back straight and eyes half-lidded. His grin says "See you in the morning" even as his exit says "Good night". Like a Cheshire that smile stays behind as I lower myself to the bottom stair. I am spent.
It was a good run.